The complex relationship between memory and silence

February 2, 2012, Association for Psychological Science

(Medical Xpress) -- People who suffer a traumatic experience often don’t talk about it, and many forget it over time. But not talking about something doesn’t always mean you’ll forget it; if you try to force yourself not to think about white bears, soon you’ll be imagining polar bears doing the polka. A group of psychological scientists explore the relationship between silence and memories in a new paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“There’s this idea, with silence, that if we don’t talk about something, it starts fading,” says Charles B. Stone of Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, an author of the paper. But that belief isn’t necessarily backed up by empirical psychological research—a lot of it comes from a Freudian belief that everyone has deep-seated issues we’re repressing and ought to talk about. The real relationship between silence and is much more complicated, Stone says.

“We are trying to understand how people remember the past in a very basic way,” Stone says. He cowrote the paper with Alin Coman of the University of Pittsburgh, Adam D. Brown of New York University, Jonathan Koppel of the University of Aarhus, and William Hirst of the New School for Social Research.

“Silence is everywhere,” Stone says. He and his coauthors divide silence about memories into several categories. You might not mention something you’re thinking about on purpose—or because it just doesn’t come up in conversation. And some memories aren’t talked about because they simply don’t come to mind. Sometimes people actively try not to remember something.

One well-studied example used by Stone and his colleagues to demonstrate how subtle the effects of silence can be, establishes that silences about the past occurring within a conversation do not uniformly promote forgetting. Some silences are more likely to lead to forgetting than others. People have more trouble remembering silenced memories related to what they or others talk about than silenced memories unrelated to the topic at hand. If President Bush wanted the public to forget that weapons of mass destruction figured in the build-up to the Iraq War, he should not avoid talking about the war and its build-up. Rather he should talk about the build-up and avoid any discussion of WMDs. And at a more personal level, when people talk to each other about the events of their lives, talking about happy memories may leave the unhappy memories unmentioned, but in the future, people may have more trouble remembering the unmentioned happy memories than the unmentioned sad memories.

Or to supply another example of the subtle relation between memory and silence: If your mother is asking you about your boyfriend and you tell her about yesterday’s date, while thinking—but not talking—about the exciting ending of the date, that romantic finish may linger longer in your memory than if you just answered her questions without thinking about the later part of the evening.

“Silence has important implications for how we remember the past beyond just forgetting,” Stone says. “In terms of memory, not all silence is equal.”

Explore further: How do I remember that I know you know that I know?

More information: www.psychologicalscience.org/i … ournals/perspectives

Related Stories

How do I remember that I know you know that I know?

August 24, 2011
(PhysOrg.com) -- “I’ll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time,” says the character Aaron in the 1987 movie Broadcast News. He and the woman he’s talking to have a lot of common ground, ...

Illusory memories can have salutary effects

October 5, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- “False memories tend to get a bad rap,” says developmental psychologist Mark L. Howe, of Lancaster University in England. Indeed, remembering events incorrectly or remembering events that didn’t ...

Forgetting is part of remembering

October 18, 2011
It's time for forgetting to get some respect, says Ben Storm, author of a new article on memory in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. "We need to rethink how ...

Why aren't we smarter already? Evolutionary limits on cognition

December 7, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- We put a lot of energy into improving our memory, intelligence, and attention. There are even drugs that make us sharper, such as Ritalin and caffeine. But maybe smarter isn’t really all that better. ...

Neuroscientists find cellular mechanism that shapes your memories

September 12, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- VU University Amsterdam neuroscientists discovered what happens in your nerve cells upon memory recall, as appeared in this week's advance online publication of Nature Neuroscience. This is important for ...

Recommended for you

Reducing sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy does not affect effectiveness

January 17, 2018
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patients treated with as few as five sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy find it equally effective as receiving 12 sessions.

How past intentions influence generosity toward the future

January 17, 2018
Over time, it really is the thought that counts – provided we know what that thought was, suggests new research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

Tracking the impact of early abuse and neglect

January 17, 2018
Children who experience abuse and neglect early in life are more likely to have problems in social relationships and underachieve academically as adults.

Study: No evidence to support link between violent video games and behaviour

January 16, 2018
Researchers at the University of York have found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.

Can psychedelic drugs 'reconnect' depressed patients with their emotions?

January 15, 2018
Imperial research suggests psilocybin can help relieve the symptoms of depression, without the 'dulling' of emotions linked with antidepressants.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.